Tales of the unexpected

 

As the first instalment of Peter Jackson’s epic Hobbit trilogy hits our screens, everyone’s favourite everyman Martin Freeman tells DONALD CLARKEabout making the move out of the office and into Middle Earth

‘I have done quite a few parts where I am a likeable affable person,” Martin Freeman says. “They would go to Ray Winstone if they wanted a hard cop or a vicious criminal. They go to me if they want a likeable person. Oh well. We all have our crosses to bear.”

This shows some self-awareness. It has been six years since we last met. On that occasion, the amiable, approachable actor quietly bemoaned the fact that he seemed to have become an everyman for the new century. He first shouldered that burden as Tim Canterbury, decent Joe struggling with mundane bureaucracy, in Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s magnificent The Office. In 2005, he took in the role of Arthur Dent, suburban drone confronted with comic infinity, in the fitful film adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. His fine performance as Dr Watson in the BBC’s recent Sherlock deviated somewhat from the pattern, but he was still acting as the eyes of the audience.

Now, Martin embarks on one of the great ordinary-bloke roles in popular culture. Unless you have spent the last five years in holy orders, you will be aware that, from this week, Martin Freeman can be seen as Bilbo Baggins in the first part of Peter Jackson’s trifurcated adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Bilbo may be a Hobbit, but he has always come across as a very unpretentious, down-to-earth class of fantasy figure.

“It’s all the same job, whether you are playing an ant or a king,” Freeman, now 41, says. “Your job is to convince people the character is living and breathing. He is a different species, but you’re right. He is the closest thing to the audience. There are humans in the story. But compared to dwarves and elves and wizards, the Hobbits are the most human. Bilbo is the audience, but not quite.”

This is not something they teach you in drama school. Squat Middle-Earthian creatures do not have the same frames of reference as – thinking back to The Office – paper-supply operatives from Berkshire.

“That reminds me of something Peter said to me early on,” Freeman mused. “He said: ‘Martin, that’s not how he would react. Remember, he’s not quite human.’ It’s not like doing Kafka’s Metamorphosis, though. It’s not like becoming a beetle. I saw him as a bit if a meerkat. Ha ha!”

Something scary is about to happen to Freeman. He has already had his fair share of attention. The Office was a sensation. Sherlock has been a worldwide hit. But the Middle-Earth films are something else again. The Hobbit trilogy, of course, ends up as a prequel to Jackson’s mighty take on the Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Sherlock Holmes fanatics can be very precious about their hero. But Tolkien enthusiasts are religious in their devotion to the sacred text. One wonders whether Freeman is ready for the hurricane of digital commentary that is about to come his way. With two more Hobbit films in the pipeline, he could find himself appearing as a hash-tag for years to come.

“In terms of saturation, it will be a step up from everything I have done,” he says. “I can’t tell if I am prepared for it. You can get away from the digital stuff. You just don’t turn on your computer. What you can’t avoid is restaurants and pubs and life. You can’t tell how people will react to you in the street. You don’t know how it will make you feel.”

Freeman’s role as the everyman must, surely, encourage citizens to approach him in the supermarket. In the flesh, he is more self-confident than Tim Canterbury and more relaxed than Dr John Watson (and taller than Bilbo, obviously). But he does, indeed, come across as an ordinary fellow with few obvious pretensions.

“Yeah. I think they are more likely to approach somebody like me and assume that I’m their mate,” he says “And that can be frightening. It can be frustrating. People talk to me like they know all about me. They know nothing about me. And that’s how I like it. It’s a kind of madness.”

Having been told how much he wants to keep his private life private, let’s ask him a little more about his private life. He was born in Aldershot and raised in outer London as the son of a naval officer and a hard-working, inspirational mum. His parents split up when he was a child and dad died just a few years later. Left with five kids – of which Martin is the youngest – his mother must have had a real struggle.

“Well. yeah. My parents had already split up by the time he died. So she wasn’t suddenly left with us. But it must have been hard. And I was a sickly child.”

Really? But I had read that he became a top-flight squash player as a teenager.

“I did. Yes. Ha ha! Who’s laughing now? Sometimes, I speak to my missus and say: ‘Yeah, my childhood does sound very Dickensian.’ But we were very loved. My parents were civil with each other and those things are the most important.”

Like so many successful actors, Freeman credits his career to one important mentor. A drama teacher named Eric Yardley lured him towards a youth theatre in Teddington and taught him all the rudiments of acting.

“He died recently and I am always happy to give him credit when I can,” Freeman remarks.

Though he didn’t achieve any class of fame until the new century, Martin was never out of work for long. Following training at Central College of Speech and Drama, he was rapidly propelled into the National Theatre and has ploughed away ever since. He claims – somewhat apologetically – that he has only ever been out of work through his own choice.

The Office was a strange beast. Whatever else you might say about it, you couldn’t reasonably claim it was a creation of the hype machine. Launched with no fanfare on BBC2 in 2001, the slippery comedy slowly evolved into a word-of-mouth phenomenon. One wonders if the cast and crew knew they had something special.

“You can’t guess those things,” he says. “As your own worst critic, if you please yourself that’s a very good place to start. I have done things I’ve loved that only 300 people have seen. With The Office, I loved it from the start. I saw it as being among the closest thing to my taste that I had done. I felt the same about Sherlock. But you never know if these things will find an audience.”

To be in one series that changes television is impressive. To appear in two such beasts constitutes a minor miracle. Sherlock could easily have turned out as a roaring disaster. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss re-imagined Sherlock Holmes – played with mad energy by Benedict Cumberbatch – as a 21st-century neurotic with a whole host of fresh eccentricities. Freeman offers us a sensible, shy Watson.

As things worked out, the series’ very first image made an impact and it has gone on to become one of the BBC’s biggest hits in recent years.

“I wanted Watson to have his respect and his dignity,” Freeman says. “But the congratulations I got were way and above the call of duty. I wasn’t prepared for people saying, almost immediately, that it was the best thing they’d ever seen on television. People really fucking said that.”

Cumberbatch’s Holmes is complex, worrying and mildly deranged. But the role would not work so well without Freeman’s complementary, introverted, unselfish performance as Watson. Everything about the man – his posture, his old-fashioned manners – speaks of the doctor’s time in the military.

“I was very keen on that side of it,” he says. “Basically, he would be the most dynamic person in the room if Sherlock wasn’t there. He is an alpha male who has sewn people up in Afghanistan. I watch a lot of fucking telly. And I like it when characters aren’t judged unfairly. People play characters as stooges and that’s not how it is. Hitler was not ‘a baddie’. Though, hang on. I’m not defending Hitler. Don’t write that.”

Bilbo in Neo-Nazi Shock!

“No, no. What I mean is that, in his own mind, Hitler was trying his best.”

Sherlock will not be back on our screens until some time in 2013. Before then we have the behemoth that is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Speculation surrounding the project has been intense. At first, Jackson was set to produce two films directed by the great Guillermo del Toro: an adaptation of the 1937 novel, and a bridging story, taking us from the end of that book to the beginning of The Lord of the Rings. We eventually ended up with a trilogy of films. How much of that triptych is drawn form the source material?

“Erm, I think it’s all from the book. I don’t know. I don’t know what we are going to be filming next year. In all honesty, I don’t know what is to come. I only know what we’ve done.”

So he hasn’t seen complete scripts for the second two parts?

“Hell, no. You’re lucky if you see the script when you’re doing it. They are pretty last-minute about it. They are constantly rewriting to make it as good as possible.”

The Hobbit project is a pretty huge commitment for Freeman. Married with a son and a daughter, he must have thought twice before committing to a massive shoot in far-off New Zealand. It will be another two years before the final part, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, makes it into cinemas.

“The obvious part of you – as an actor – jumps at the opportunity,” he says. “Then you worry about all that. But Peter and the rest are so reasonable and nice about it. They are family people. They knew I had to see my family. But then people from New Zealand are as nice as you’ve heard.”

He will, however, have to endure cries of “Oi, Bilbo!” every time he goes out for a kebab.

“Well, the amount of people shouting ‘Tim’ did get to me when I was doing The Office,” he remarks. “But I later realised that they liked me. They weren’t shouting ‘you wanker!’ So that’s all good.”

What a sensible fellow.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is out now

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